In my very early years in the rabbinate, a congregant gave me a valuable lesson in community politics; it’s guided me ever since.
There was a potential schism involving a handful of people substantively, and a greater circle of people casually. Of the 230 families in the shul, probably 10-15 were in the former group, and 20-25 in the latter. But to me it felt like everyone was involved, because it was an issue that was in my face daily, and because I saw many of the people involved daily. The matter became intense enough, ultimately, that I felt like I needed to speak publicly about it, to set and justify policy, in the derashah.
Of course, as I noted in this article a couple of years ago, the rabbi’s speech is a clumsy, awkward tool, and not one to be used to address real issues or instigate substantive and durable change. But the matter was so in-my-face that I wanted to go that route, to tell the community what I thought and vindicate my stance to any doubters.
Fortunately, someone involved convinced me not to go that route, but to handle things privately. I owe him a great debt for his advice. His point was simple: Right now, 10% of the shul is involved. If you speak about it from the bimah, that number will be 100%.
The math is simple. The logic is simple. But I couldn’t see it, because I was in the middle of it.
I didn’t speak about it. The issue continued to percolate for a long time afterward, and it did grow beyond that initial group, but it never became the dominant issue I would have made it, and I never needed to become publicly involved in the potentially ugly side of it.
That day, I learned several things – none of which were new to me, but all of which definitely require regular reinforcement:
1) Use your speeches for what they do best; don’t try to turn them into multi-purpose tools.
2) Don’t confuse what’s on your mind with what’s on everyone else’s mind.
3) Don’t get carried away by your imagination of where political issues may go in the future.
4) And, of course: Listen to others; they can offer an objective voice, and they can offer a wise voice.